A San Fernando Superior Court jury Wednesday found a Mission Hills man not guilty of murdering his mother and his aunt as they sat in their car in Pacoima last year.
Charles (Carlos) de la Cuesta, 28, looked upward in relief and sighed as the verdict was announced in a courtroom that for security reasons had been cleared of the crowd of family members and friends who attended the one-week trial. De la Cuesta's wife, Donna, sat behind him, sobbing and praying before the jury brought in the verdict.
"Praise God," she whispered as she learned that her husband had been acquitted of the two counts of first-degree murder. Then she rushed from the courtroom to flash a thumbs-up sign to waiting relatives, who broke into sobs and cheers at the news.
De la Cuesta was charged in April with shooting to death his 61-year-old mother, Angie Hernandez, and her 52-year-old sister, Mary Gomez, early on the morning of Nov. 8, 1984.
Family Rallied to His Support
Family members, who had offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the killers, immediately rallied to his support, insisting that De la Cuesta would not have murdered his own mother and aunt.
During the trial an admitted prostitute and heroin addict, Joanna Aguirre, testified that she saw De la Cuesta arguing with the two women after he had driven alongside the car in which Gomez and Hernandez were sitting. Moments later, Aguirre testified, she heard the shots that killed the two sisters.
Defense witnesses, however, testified that, at the time the shootings took place, they saw the car De la Cuesta allegedly drove to the slaying site parked in front of his house.
De la Cuesta testified that he spent the night of the killings in his camper around the corner from his home after fighting with his wife. Family members said after the shootings that Hernandez and Gomez were on their way to help resolve the quarrel when they were killed.
Verdict a Surprise
The verdict on Wednesday came as a surprise to attorneys on both sides. Jurors had announced Friday afternoon that they were deadlocked after three days of deliberations. Judge Howard J. Schwab ordered them to continue deliberating Tuesday, telling them that they had not taken enough time to review the case.
Jurors declined to comment after the verdict. Deputy Dist. Atty. Pamela Davis-Springer said members of the jury told her that they had been deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal as late as Tuesday afternoon, when an additional jury instruction was read to them advising dissenting jurors to reconsider their position.
Schwab ordered the courtroom cleared of all spectators except attorneys, reporters and De la Cuesta's wife because of a reported plan by members of the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang, to kill De la Cuesta at the request of an unknown third party.
A state police officer learned of the purported plot to kill De la Cuesta and relayed the information to the Sheriff's Department, officials said, but it was not known why anyone would want to kill the defendant.
After the verdict, jubilant friends and relatives of De la Cuesta thanked jurors in the case and tearfully hugged one another.
"I told you he was innocent," Donna de la Cuesta said, clutching one of the couple's three children, 19-month-old Charles Jr. "I just want to thank God and give all the credit to him in his glory and his power."
Donna de la Cuesta said she is considering filing a suit against the Police Department's Foothill Division detectives and the district attorney's office for what she called "improper investigation."
'We May Never Know'
"The whole sad part about it is, they have had their eyes on Carlos and the real killers are getting away," she said. "I have a feeling Foothill will just put it aside now. We may never know who killed them.
"We have lost $63,000 in lawyers' fees and bail," she said, noting that the family lost $10,000 when De la Cuesta's $100,000 bail was revoked because of a threatening letter mailed to Davis-Springer. It was never determined who sent the letter.
"It's eight years of hard work down the drain for us in just seven months. We have to sell everything and start all over. . . . I don't think it's fair for Carlos and I to have to swallow all that."
Friends said they would hold a celebration of the verdict as soon as De la Cuesta's release from County Jail could be processed.
"I'm thrilled to death, thrilled to life actually, about what has just happened," family friend Richard Meza said.